1957’s The Black Cloud was Sir Fred Hoyle’s first novel.
A young astronomer working a blink comparator gets a career-making break when he notices that a small black region on two photographic plates grew measurably in the month between exposures. After a hurried consultation, the discoverer and his colleagues conclude:
- The dark spot is an interstellar cloud.
- Its apparent growth is because it is headed towards the Solar System.
- The lack of transverse motion means that it is headed directly at the Solar System.
- It will arrive in about two years.
Exciting times to be an astronomer! Very exciting, because if the cloud passes between the Earth and the Sun it is dense enough to blot out sunlight entirely 1, dooming us all to a slow lingering death.
Well, the discoverer can enjoy his enhanced career for the two years he has left.
Having discovered that Earth lies under a death sentence, the scientists must decide what to do with the information. With astronomer Kingsley the one vocal exception, the group decides that the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom must be informed. Cynical Kingsley suspects he knows how that will play out and he makes his own arrangements. His cunning wins him control of a top secret facility at Nortonstowe.
(Or, as Her Majesty’s government prefers to think of it, he and the other dangerous intellectuals are safely quarantined far from the press.)
It is assumed that the Cloud won’t stay; it will eventually leave the Solar System, continuing its travels. If humans can outlast the darkness, they may be able to rebuild once the Cloud leaves.
It is with considerable alarm, therefore, that the astronomers note that the Cloud is slowing down and seems to be settling around the Sun.
But wait! There’s more! Kingsley and his team are feverishly piling up data and come to an unexpected conclusion: the Cloud is alive. More than that, the Cloud is intelligent, quite possibly of a higher order of intelligence than humans.
The astronomers may be able to negotiate peaceful coexistence with the behemoth, but only if Cloud and humanity can work out how to speak to each other.
If the paranoid governments of the world do not first provoke the Cloud into lashing out.…
In defence of the paranoid governments of the world, not only has the Cloud (inadvertently) killed a billion or so people (and driven thousands of unlucky species into extinction), but Kingsley and company try to hold governments hostage. They threaten to provoke the Cloud into an attack if the scientists’ request for time to negotiate with the cloud is ignored. It’s a bit surprising that none of the nuclear missiles that get launched towards the end of the book were aimed at Nortonstowe. Hoyle takes a very dim view of politicians but even he admits that in this case they were right to object to Kingsley’s threats.
The 1950s were a golden age of cozy catastrophes, where terrible things that were nobody’s fault would wipe out all those people who had the misfortune not to be sensible middle-class English people. In this novel, industrialized nations are far more able to meet the challenges of being first baked and then frozen by the effects of the Cloud. While the various governments first ensure their own survival, the great powers — America, Russia, India and so on — also try to save as many people as they can. The exception is China, which takes advantage of the opportunity to let the Cloud rid them of Tibetans and Mongolians.
Inexplicably, nobody seems to have organized an effort to save Africans. This probably contributes to the fifty percent losses the Equatorial peoples suffer thanks to the Cloud. The Inuit seem to have been similarly overlooked but they fare far better than Africans; the environmental side-effects are less pronounced in the far north. Indeed, luck seems to be the primary factor determining survival: better to live in an industrialized nation than an agrarian one, better to be near a pole than the equator, better not to live under an authoritarian, vindictive government.
We eventually learn that civilization did survive, but the author leaves us to speculate exactly what happened to the surviving humans, and countries, after the crisis was over 2. I suspect that things were not all peace, love, and kumbaya.
It’s interesting that a scientist would write a book that views genius as a matter of luck rather than an inherent property of some favored humans. As the Cloud explains, most people happen on inefficient ways of dealing with information while a fortunate few stumble on efficient ways of thinking. It’s not that geniuses have more of some mysterious q‑factor, they just get more use out of the same resources than other people do. The Cloud believes even geniuses could do better than they do. Sadly, its first attempt to improve human cognition turns out to be uniformly lethal 3 … but that is why pencils have erasers and universities legions of grad students.
A lot of hard SF authors congratulate themselves for doing the math. Hoyle does more than that: he cheerfully shows the math,
with supporting diagrams when needed. Readers can follow the calculations with their slide rules or skim past the hard stuff as they choose!
It’s also interesting that a younger Hoyle (unlike older Hoyle, who was always sure that he was right) admits that there are problems that he could not solve with the tools at hand (slide rules and perhaps a UNIVAC or two.) This is vexing if getting your PhD depends on solving such hairy problems; it is even more vexing if you are trying to work out whether or not your planet will have a breathable atmosphere in a year’s time.
Hoyle’s prose is about as lyrical as one might expect from an astronomer with no particular background in literature 4. It does get the job done.
Please email corrections to jdnicoll at panix dot com.
1: Not to mention acting as giant, if inefficient, reflector while it is approaching the sun, baking the Earth before it freezes it.
2: A new ice age seems imminent. Also, it seems to me that having a cloud with the mass of Jupiter pass through the inner system has the potential to change the Earth’s orbit. Since nobody comments on the Earth having been pulled out to the orbit of Mars or dropped into the Sun it seems the Cloud took care to minimize its effects on Earth’s orbit once it became aware the Earth was inhabited.
3: The fact the Cloud could blunder so badly does somewhat undermine its role as the author’s mouthpiece. It’s interesting that the Cloud seems to be convinced the universe is Steady State — but it also thought that it could decant wisdom into humans without melting their brains, so it’s clearly not 100% reliable.
One interesting detail about the educational method it invents is that there is reason to think it might not be lethal on the poorly informed (the lethal effect is due to contradictions between what the scientists firmly believe to be true and what the Black Cloud has decanted into their brains.). I’ve read a number of books with education machines and I think this is the only version I have seen that works better on the ignorant.
4: It is only on this rereading that I first wondered: obviously he wrote the stuff but did Hoyle ever read science fiction?